TV debates: Giving BJP spokespersons back in the same coin
How come TV anchors are suddenly put in mind of 'Bhasha ki maryada’ the moment BJP spokespersons are at the receiving end? Is 'maryada' to be observed by opposition spokesperson only?
She is feisty and is among the most combative spokespersons for the Congress on TV. Supriya Shrinate was again in the news this week for her controversial “gandi naali ka keeda” (despicable worm) comment made to Sambit Patra of the BJP during a TV debate. BJP supporters were outraged and made snide references to Congress “culture” and use of “language” while Congress supporters cheered her for giving it back to Patra, who they find obnoxious on TV.
Ms Shrinate in March this year had made a video statement warning that if BJP members used abusive language against Congress leaders or Rahul Gandhi, she would respond in kind. Her retort is seen as part of that strategy.
Dismissive language to ‘ridicule’ opponents is a powerful weapon in political communication, perfected by the BJP. It raises the morale of supporters and strips opponents of their high ground. Crass jokes, innuendos, half-truths and wild allegations which cannot be countered on the spot are some of the devices used. Bengal BJP leader Dilip Ghosh’s “wear Bermuda” jibe at Mamata Banerjee or Narendra Modi’s “didi o didi” call and Amit Shah’s ‘Kutta-Billi’ reference to all opposition leaders—although not on TV—are recent examples and cues.
NH spoke to Shrinate on some of these concerns. Excerpts:
What was the immediate provocation for pledging a tit-for-tat strategy?
I try to be civil and dignified in TV debates because the viewers deserve nothing less. I always research the subject for 3-4 hours before going go to a debate. But when the other side lies, resorts to name calling and abuse, what options are we left with? Most BJP spokespersons come unprepared and get away by whataboutery, obfuscating the issue and abusing the opposition. At some point, you have to say enough is enough.
Why do you think Rahul Gandhi is their particular target?
Because he makes them nervous. Mr. Gandhi never stoops to their level but he asks questions to which they do not have answers. He would ask why the Chinese are still in our territory? Why are so many Indians unemployed? Where are the vaccines? They do not have answers to any of these questions.
What about the Anchors and their role?
TV anchors have normalised the culture of abuse against opposition leaders. They never intervene when BJP spokespersons resort to abuse, but when panelists reply in kind, they suddenly remember ‘Bhasha ki maryada’. Most of the time they intervene when the Prime Minister is at the receiving end.
You have also been a journalist and an anchor yourself. How would you compare the TV media during UPA era and now?
The big difference is that back then we could question those in power. Today, there is an enormous pressure on media to give pro-government spin to the stories. Anybody they cannot control is harassed and intimidated.
TV channels have been guilty of spreading falsehood like the one that assured viewers there were microchips in Rs. 2000 notes…
That’s what I am saying. It is one thing to make a factual error in a developing story, but it is different when members of the media sit with the government planning on how to shape narratives. Those in the field work hard to bring good stories but are betrayed by editors sitting with the government and deciding which story to tell, and how.
So, the credibility of the mainstream media…
The credibility is completely lost and that is why several journalists have independently resorted to the digital media; which is why the government is now busy stifling the digital media. IT rules for digital news and OTT platforms did not come via Parliament or any expert committee. Laws are now being made in the drawing rooms of a select few. If you (government) were honest to the electorate, why do you need so many spin doctors?
You have had quite a few spats with Sambit Patra on TV; is he the elephant in the room?
I will not single out any particular spokesperson. It is their style of politics. Name calling Rahul Gandhi, saying vile things, abusing women get rewarded in the BJP and so there is an incentive. But this has to stop because we are all in public service and we have to put solutions on the table.
Do anchors come prepared for TV debates?
Repeating 3-4 Tweets on camera is not anchoring. An anchor is a moderator. They should get both sides of the story, verify and question them, be better prepared on the subject than the entire panel and grill both sides. But most anchors fall far short.